A False Permanence

One of the mistakes we literary folk tend to make is to assume that just because someone is a good novelist he or she must be wise as well. Case in point, here is Jonathan Frantzen being silly.

The gist of Frantzen’s argument is that because ebooks are not as permanent as paper books they are a threat to our society. Only if the words in a book can be preserved exactly, unchanged, for ever and ever, can civilization be maintained.

There are obviously dangers about work only published electronically being lost because electronics decay more quickly than paper. But this isn’t the point that Frantzen is making, and anyway the same charge could be leveled at paper vis-a-vis writing on stone tablets.

It is possible that Frantzen is concerned about the ability of Amazon to change the text in a book you have purchased without your permission. However, that only applies if you buy from someone like Amazon or Apple, and don’t take steps to ensure you have a safe copy of what you bought. We shouldn’t expect non-SF authors to be computer literate, but again this doesn’t appear to be his main point. What he really wants is for those words, presumably especially the ones he wrote, to be preserved exactly as they were written.

So I wonder, what would he have done had he been alive in Homer’s time? Because before mankind invented writing, all literature was handed down from one performer to another and had to be remembered. I’m sure the ancient bards, no matter what culture they came from, were very good at memorizing stories. But I also suspect that they were not perfect, and that some of them could not resist the temptation to extemporize.

I note in passing that one of the joys of Arthurian scholarship is to see how the stories have been reconfigured over the centuries to fit the prevailing culture in which they are being told.

For that matter, what would Frantzen do if he were a playwright? Because one of the joys of theatre is to see how each new director interprets classic plays. What would Shakespeare have made of West Side Story? Given that he made no attempt to put his plays in historically accurate settings, but rather put the ancient world in a contemporary (for him) Elizabethan environment, I think he would have approved.

So this desire for permanence, while understandable in a novelist (and perhaps ever more so in a poet), is really anti-art. Furthermore, I suspect that the idea that things written down centuries ago can and should be used as absolute guides to correct moral behavior now has been much more damaging to society than the idea that texts might be changed. Really, Mr Frantzen, there is no need to panic.

Update: Chad Post was much less polite than I have been.

10 thoughts on “A False Permanence

  1. And then there is the little problem that what lasts is accidental; libraries get bombed but the adverts on the underground survive.

  2. Even if you were to preserve the exact actual words, you can’t preserve the exact meaning of those words, since these are a function of the culture and society that the words were created in. This is especially noticeable when it comes to humour, although it’s a more general problem. Many of the jokes in Shakespere are no longer funny. Going back even further, I believe there are passages in Roman and Greek plays which are clearly meant to be references to in-jokes of the time, but whose meaning is completely lost to us these days.

    1. Even so: would you rather have Shakespeare’s jokes, funny or not, or some contemporary comedian’s updated rewrite? No matter how much language changes, or culture shifts within or around the language, there is still value in the original. Even where the meaning is lost, that’s valuable; it says “Things have changed, and you are not like us,” which is more useful and far more interesting – to my mind, at least – than “here’s a contemporary reference instead, even though it has no connection to what the author meant.”

  3. “So this desire for permanence … is really anti-art.”

    I think that’s a leap too far. Art is not static, any more than language is – but individual works of art, oh yes. Our reactions to it shift, but Michelangelo’s David remains the thing it is. And the same is true of works of language. This is one of the reasons we have books, that words might be set down and kept reliably intact so that you’re not dependent on memory or interpretation, so that you have what was actually intended. I’m not afraid of e-books, but I still stand by the author’s right to say “This is my text; noli me tangere,” regardless of how the world changes around it. We write for our own time, and then our work stands as a memento of our own time, speaking to the changes, to the future and about us; that’s one of the purposes of art.

  4. I really like your comparison to the transition from stone tablets. I think it’s very compelling. Also, the last paragraph is absolutely perfect! It’s probably typical for improvements to “threaten” society for a period of time.

    Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like he contradicts himself when he talks about justice & self-government. Don’t they both rely upon being amendable?

    If the universe collapses it probably won’t care how books were published. On second thought, the evolution from stone tablets to ebooks implies we’re headed toward more incorporeal ends, which possess a greater potential for “permanence.”

    1. Thanks. 🙂

      And I don’t think we can read too much into what Frantzen says. It sounds like he’s just being a grumpy conservative.

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